On the first day of Woodstock, Aug. 15, 1969, Richie Havens was supposed to be the fifth act. With the scheduled openers all stuck in a massive traffic jam, Havens and his small band ended up taking the stage first, at a little after 5 p.m. They played their scheduled songs, plus more–including the anti–Vietnam War anthem “Handsome Johnny”–and then Havens improvised an encore, blending “Freedom” (which he made up on the spot) with the spiritual “Motherless Child.” Two years before Woodstock, Havens, who died April 22 at 72, released a soulful album, Mixed Bag, that pervaded FM radio; two years afterward, his rendition of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” cracked the Top 20. He recorded two dozen albums, wrote commercial jingles and performed at Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration, in 1993. But it was his Woodstock performance that captured the spirit of the festival, and thanks to the 1970 concert film, “Freedom/Motherless Child” became 4½ of the most talismanic minutes of Woodstock. The image of an exhausted yet transfixed Havens, his craggy voice crying out for freedom, came to personify the hopes of the ’60s generation. Thanks to YouTube, it will live on for generations to come.
This text originally appeared in the May 13 issue of TIME magazine.
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